Councilmembers being shady? Say it ain’t so!

Hawkins and Franklin

A neighbor posted the text of an email they received to NextDoor and asked for someone to get more information or explain what it meant. The text of the email, most likely sent from either Progressive Maryland or PG Changemakers, was full of accusations and scaremonger language, accusing At-Large councilmembers Franklin and Hawkins of all kinds of impropriety, so of course, it got my attention. Here’s the email as it was posted to NextDoor:

Council members Calvin Hawkins & Mel Franklin are at it again, seeking to protect their own political power and developers interests over the community. This past Tuesday, Council Chair Hawkins and Council Member Franklin presented two bills they hope will prevent the incoming Council Majority from enacting positive, community-centered zoning legislation or hearing most zoning cases.

Their bill, CB-91-2022 will amend the new Zoning Ordinance rules for enacting amendments to the Zoning Ordinance so as to require a Supermajority vote (8 votes) instead of the longstanding simple majority (6 votes). Hawkins and Franklin, in collaboration with other Council Members, have adopted countless developer-friendly amendments to the Zoning Ordinance based on a simple majority vote. Now, they want to change the rules for an incoming Council Majority that they know will be accountable to the community instead of developers.

CB-92-2022 will amend the new Zoning Ordinance to prohibit the County Council from choosing to hear zoning and site plan cases from the Planning Board and Zoning Hearing Examiner. For decades, zoning hearings have been a vehicle for the community to express their concerns. If enacted, there will be no hearings for the community, and only appeals will come before the council in limited circumstances. Developers have long wanted to eliminate public hearings to avoid accountability.

In another anti-democratic move regularly used by Hawkins and Franklin, CB-91-2022 & CB-92-2022 are being rushed through the legislative process to avoid public awareness and scrutiny. ALL Zoning Bills must be “Introduced” by Tuesday, September 20th. These bills were presented Tuesday and have to be heard by the “PHED Committee”, next week. The September 15th Committee meeting has been announced, giving only 7 days notice for major land use policy changes that will dramatically harm citizen rights. This committee’s members include current Council Members Mel Franklin, Calvin Hawkins, Todd Turner, Sydney Harrison. Many of this group of Council Members have a track record of trying to enact legislation that favors special interests groups over community stakeholders, always without community input, sometimes illegally as recent history has shown. The lack of notice undermines the community’s ability to plan to speak out against these bills.

What can we do about it? Progressive Maryland & PG Changemakers are working together to get the word out to the community so that we can stand up to these members, and let them know we oppose Council Bills 91 & 92 that seek to, once again, silence the voice and usurp the will of the voters by using our system of democracy to cater to developers and their own political power instead of their constituents.

CLICK TO SIGN UP TO TESTIFY Sign up to testify or submit testimony in opposition of the bills or send in comment. You will only be able to sign up or submit comments up until September 14th, at 3 p.m. EDT.

So let’s break this down and go over the information here. The email starts strong, accusing the council members of trying to protect their power. Keep in mind, PG County is an all-Democrat-run county. This fight is between the regular, run-of-the-mill Democrats who have always been in power in this county and the ideologically-driven Progressive Democrats who have been gaining ground there. Essentially the old guard vs the young up-and-comers.

CB-091 is a one-page bill that says, “the adoption of a legislative amendment to the local zoning laws of Prince George’s County shall be by a two-thirds majority of the full Council.” This changes the rules from the current simple majority required. But that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, honestly. It raises the bar to amend the Zoning Ordinance. I’m not sure why that would be a bad thing or why the four new progressive members would complain. The council comprises 9 district seats and 2 at-large seats, 11 total. A two-thirds majority means they would need eight people to pass any Zoning amendments. The complaints listed in the email about this sound like sour grapes. The argument is that it’s not fair the new members need to find more people to side with them to amend the Zoning Ordinance. But the same is now true in reverse as well, with the added bonus that the four progressive members could put a stop to anything they wanted just by standing together. I’m really not sure why this is a problem.

CB-092 is a different animal. The county council also sits as the district council in charge of making zoning changes and approving the Planning Board’s actions. This is where things get messy. For as long as anyone can remember, the District Council had the ability to “elect to review” any case they so desired and change the Planning Board’s recommendation. It’s been the county’s worst-kept secret that if you want your development approved, you just have to grease the right palms. Developers would donate to councilmembers’ campaigns; later, those same councilmembers would have the ultimate power over who’s development got approved or denied. This bill replaces a huge swath of the Zoning Ordinance, primarily to remove every instance where the phrase “elect to review” is written and replace it with language that refers to “reviews of applications required by law.” We must look back to a 2015 court decision to understand the reason for these changes2015 court decision. Mr. Bradley Heard reported on the situation that led to the case and why the decision was for the best.

“The decision significantly reduces the amount of political influence that the Prince George’s County Council can exert over developers and individual development projects. Traditionally, the council has liberally used its discretionary authority to “call up” a case decided by the Planning Board for further review, even when the developer and opposing parties of record choose not to challenge the Planning Board’s decision.”

The council tried an end-run around the court’s decision with an attempt to get the state legislature that would give them the right to call up whatever plans they wanted, but that effort failed in 2016. Despite that, the “elect to review” language in the Zoning Ordinance remained unchanged until now.

I understand where the Progressive groups are coming from; the idea that the public will lose their biggest chance to prevent a zoning change or development they do not want sounds bad. However, the reality is that, according to the court, the council never had the legal authority to “elect to review” planning board decisions. If the people want their voices heard on planning matters, they must go to the planning board.

Say what you will about the council members and their shady practices to avoid the public commenting on bills. Still, in this case, it seems like the Progressive groups either don’t really understand the situation or are just looking for an excuse to throw some shade.

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